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225 posts categorized "Decoration"

06 November 2018

Coins, swords and urns: British Museum loans in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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Our landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, presents an unrivalled chance to see Anglo-Saxon manuscripts alongside some of the most stunning objects from this period. Many of these artefacts have been generously loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum, to whom we are extremely grateful for their support. Their objects help to illuminate the origins of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, the period of Mercian supremacy, and the period of conquest in the 10th and 11th centuries.

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The Loveden Hill Urn: British Museum, BEP 1963, 1001.14

The Loveden Hill Urn, dating from the second half of the 5th century, is one of more than 1,800 urns excavated at this cremation cemetery in Lincolnshire. Uniquely, it bears a runic inscription, which includes what could be a female personal name, SïÞæbæd. This constitutes one of the very earliest pieces of evidence for the English language. You can explore a 3D model of this urn on the Sketchfab website.

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The Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle: British Museum, BEP 1939, 1010.1

This exquisite gold belt buckle, excavated in the Sutton Hoo ship burial in the 1930s, is one of the most recognisable objects in our exhibition. The ship-burial included a wealth of other items including armour and weaponry, as well as a collection of silver bowls and two silver spoons which possibly came from Byzantium. This ship-burial commemorated someone of outstanding wealth and political significance in the early 7th century.

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Kentish disc brooch: British Museum, BEP 1884,1221.4

Another stunning gold item loaned by the British Museum is this 7th century disc brooch discovered at Faversham, Kent, in 1859. It was found in a woman’s grave, and its gold and garnet style bears many similarities to other elaborate brooches discovered in southern England.

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Gold dinar of Offa of Mercia: British Museum, CM 1913,1213.1

The British Museum has also loaned three outstanding coins to the exhibition, which together illustrate the height of Mercian power in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. The coin shown above is the gold dinar of King Offa of Mercia (d. 796). This unique coin carries the inscription OFFA REX on one side; on the other is a design based on an Arabic inscription on a coin of the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (d. 775). The Arabic inscription translates as ‘there is no God but Allah alone’; the minting of this coin in Offa's name perhaps reflects his wide political reach and the value he placed on international trade.

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Silver penny of Cynethryth of Mercia: British Museum, CM TYS (BMC 60)

This coin was issued in the name of Offa’s wife, Queen Cynethryth (d. 798). It is the only surviving example of a coin issued in the name of an Anglo-Saxon queen.

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Gold mancus of Coenwulf of Mercia: British Museum, CM 2006, 0204.1

This gold coin was issued in the name of Offa’s successor, Coenwulf of Mercia (d. 821). Its design closely mirrors other gold and silver coins from the same period. It may be the earliest gold coin intended to form part of a regular, uniform currency.

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The Fuller Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 0404.1

The Fuller Brooch has been dated to the late 9th century on account of its unique design, which reflects the centrality of man’s place in the order of creation. The outer circle features four quadrants, each filled with four smaller circles which alternate between depictions of mankind, animals, birds and plants. In the centre are five figures, which are believed to represent each of the five senses. The central figure holds two floriated stems and stares out with prominent eyes, representing sight, and is surrounded by four figures which represent smell, hearing, touch and taste.

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The Ædwen Brooch: British Museum, BEP 1951, 1011.1

Another British Museum object in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is the Ædwen Brooch, which has been dated to the early 11th century. An inscription in Old English was etched into the outer rim of the reverse: ÆDVǷEN ME AG AGE HYO DRIHTEN / DRIHTEN HINE AǷERIE ÐE ME HIRE ÆTFERIE / BVTON HYO ME SELLE HIRE AGENES ǷILLES ('Ædwen owns me, may the Lord own her. May the Lord curse him who takes me from her, unless she gives me of her own free will').

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Silver-gilt fitting with runic inscriptions: British Museum, BEP 1869, 0610.1

A runic inscription is found on this silver-gilt fitting, the shape of which suggests that it may have once been part of a scabbard.

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Seax with runic lettering: British Museum BEP 1857, 0623.1

This large iron knife or seax also has a runic inscription. This includes a runic alphabet and the name Beagnoth, who may have been the original owner or the craftsman who produced the blade.

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Sword with decorated fittings: British Museum, BEP 1887,0209.1

Another fearsome blade loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum is this magnificent sword, complete with decorated fittings. Although it is extremely rare to find this type of sword in England, they are more common across northern and eastern Europe, suggesting that this sword may have belonged to a Scandinavian warrior.

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Seal-matrix of Ælfric: British Museum, BEP 1832, 0512.2

Seal-matrices were used to make an impression in a wax seal to authenticate a document or to close it. This matrix is made of copper alloy and is inscribed + SIGILLUM ÆLFRIC (‘+ Seal of Ælfric').

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Seal-matrix of Godwine and Godgytha: British Museum, BEP 1881, 0404.1

A second seal-matrix is made from walrus ivory, and is inscribed + SIGILLUM GODWINI MINISTRI (‘+ Seal of Godwine the Thegn’). The matrix was later re-used by a nun, who had her own inscription added on the reverse, reading + SIGILLUM GODGYĐE MONACHE DEO DATE ('+ Seal of Godytha, nun given to God’). Godytha may have been Godwine's wife or daughter. Both of these seal-matrices were high status objects, perhaps issued in connection with the performance of official duties on behalf of the king.

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Blythburgh writing tablet: British Museum, BEP, 1902, 0315.1

Another extraordinary object loaned to the exhibition by the British Museum is this 8th-century writing tablet, discovered at Blythburgh in Suffolk. Since parchment was relatively expensive to produce, tablets such as these were used when scribes were learning to write, making drafts or taking notes. This tablet is one half of a pair, and the other side would have originally been attached with leather thongs threaded through the two holes in the ling side.

We are extremely grateful to the British Museum for lending these fascinating objects to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. They can be viewed at the British Libraryuntil 19 February 2019.

 

Rebecca Lawton

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24 October 2018

The Utrecht Psalter on loan to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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At the end of the British Library's landmark Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are three incredible and interrelated works of art. The earliest — and the one that sparked an artistic revolution — is the Utrecht Psalter, made in Reims (now northern France) during the reign of Louis the Pious (814–840). We are extremely grateful to Utrecht University Library for its generous loan of this beautiful manuscript to our exhibition.

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Psalm 14 from the Utrecht Psalter: Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32, f. 8r

The drawings in the Utrecht Psalter are revolutionary in their approach to illustrating the Psalms. Previously, the Psalms were sometimes ornamented with scenes from the life of King David, either on a few pages or painted inside initials, as in the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century.

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Detail of an historiated initial showing King David saving a sheep from a lion: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 53r 

By contrast, the Utrecht Psalter’s ink drawings illustrate every phrase from the text of the Psalm on a given page. Check out the annotated version produced by Utrecht University to see how each element in the drawing was inspired by a different line in the text. In addition to literally representing the Psalms, these drawings offer visual interpretation and commentary.

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‘Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns’, as depicted in the Utrecht Psalter: Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32, f. 12r

The Utrecht Psalter was hugely influential for the style of its drawings. This manuscript was one of many books that travelled between the Continent and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. By AD 1000 it had arrived in Canterbury where a direct copy of it was made, now known as the Harley Psalter, and also currently on display next to the Utrecht Psalter.

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‘Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns’, as depicted in the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 12r

The vivid style of line-drawings in the Utrecht Psalter had a huge impact on early English art beyond the immediate copies of the Psalter. Many manuscripts associated with Canterbury, from calendars to canon tables to archbishops’ handbooks, contain lively drawings that show its influence. Drawing was considered a high-status art form on a par with painting in late 10th- and 11th-century England, and some images mix both styles.

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Psalm 14 from the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 8r

The Utrecht Psalter continued to inspire art at Canterbury after the Norman Conquest. One of these later copies was the 12th-century Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1), which is also displayed alongside the Utrecht and Harley Psalters in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

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The Eadwine Psalter: Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, f. 24r

The three Psalters ultimately ended up in different collections. The Harley Psalter was acquired by the earls of Mortimer and Oxford and became part of the Harley collection. The Eadwine Psalter was sent to Cambridge and is now in the Wren Library in Trinity College. In turn, the Utrecht Psalter came into the possession of Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), a noted collector of manuscripts. At the back of the volume, Cotton added some leaves from an 8th-century gospel-book, which seems to have been made at Wearmouth-Jarrow, Bede’s monastery. At some stage, the oldest surviving charter from England was also part of the volume, but it was subsequently removed and is now Cotton MS Augustus II 2.

Cotton loaned the Utrecht Psalter on at least two occasions. James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh (1581–1656), probably borrowed this manuscript around 1625 and described it in his notebook. Later, Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel (1585–1646), borrowed seven books from Cotton’s library including ‘an auncient coppie of the Psalms. Literis maiusculis, in Latin, and pictures’.

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Sir Robert Cotton owned the Utrecht Psalter in the 17th century. In this portrait, commissioned in 1626, he is shown resting his hands upon the Cotton Genesis (courtesy of the Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L., Heanton Satchville, Devon).

Cotton's collection was used by writers who were looking for political arguments and precedents. In 1629, Charles I ordered that Cotton’s library be closed, on the grounds that it included a tract that advocated for absolutist monarchy, and Cotton himself was briefly imprisoned.

Robert Cotton died soon afterwards, in 1631. Meanwhile, Thomas Arundel seems to have taken the Psalter with him to the continent. There, his family lived rather lavishly, and the possessions of his son William Howard, Viscount Stafford (1612–1680), were auctioned twice to pay off debts. Eventually, Willem de Ridder acquired the Utrecht Psalter, and he bequeathed the manuscript to Utrecht Library on his death in 1716.

We are very grateful to Utrecht University for generously loaning this superstar to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, so that it can be displayed alongside the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter. You can book tickets to see it here. The manuscripts discussed in this blogpost are also featured in a catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, available in both hardback and paperback from the British Library shop.

 

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library

19 October 2018–19 February 2019

 

Alison Hudson

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17 October 2018

Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms online

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The British Library holds the world’s most important collections of books made or owned in England between the eclipse of Roman Britain and the Norman Conquest of 1066. These books and documents contain crucial evidence for the development of society, economy, literature, government, art and religion during the transformative period between the 7th and the 11th centuries. Ahead of the Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, we are delighted to announce that over 200 manuscripts made or owned in England before 1100 can now be viewed in full online on our Digitised Manuscripts website, along with the surviving single-sheet documents produced before the Norman Conquest. We’ve produced a list of manuscripts digitised as of October 2018 that appear in Helmut Gneuss and Michael Lapidge, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist of Manuscripts and Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms. The list is available here as a spreadsheet (this format does not work with all web browsers): Download Digitised Manuscripts from the AngloSaxon Kingdoms

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Miniature of David surrounded by musicians and scribes, from the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century with later additions: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 30v

Many of these manuscripts were digitised in 2015 and 2016 in memory of Melvin R. Seiden. Others have been digitised thanks to the generosity of a variety of other funders. These books and documents demonstrate the range of writing produced by early English speakers, including the oldest intact European book; epic poems; short riddles; mesmerising illuminated Gospel-books; even rough notes on 200 cheeses. The list includes not only books that were made in England, but works whose annotations show they were owned in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. For example, the oldest book known to have been owned in England in this period was made in Africa. 

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Detail of Biblical quotations from the letters of Cyprian, made in North Africa in the 4th century, with annotations added in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms around the 8th century: Add MS 40165a, f. 3v

Still more Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are being digitised all the time under The Polonsky Foundation England and France Project: Manuscripts from the British Library and the Bibliothèque nationale de France, 700-1200. Stay tuned to the #PolonskyPre1200 hashtag on Twitter for the latest updates. 

Other early manuscripts could not be photographed in the traditional way due to historic damage, such as burning and erasures. However, Christina Duffy and the British Library's Conservation Centre have been doing pioneering work with new forms of imaging. Come to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition to learn more, and to see some of these manuscripts in person, as well as online. 

 
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20 September 2018

The Book of Durrow to be displayed at the British Library

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It is now less than one month until the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition opens at the British Library on 19 October. Today, we are delighted to announce that the Book of Durrow will be on display in the exhibition, on loan from the Library of Trinity College Dublin. This manuscript, dated to the late 7th or turn of the 8th century, is believed to be the earliest fully decorated gospel-book to survive from Ireland or Britain.

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Elaborated initial at the opening of the gospel of Mark

The carpet page and opening of the Gospel of Mark, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, ff. 85v–86r). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

The date and origin of the manuscript have long been debated. Strong parallels with early Anglo-Saxon metalwork, including objects from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, encouraged former attributions to Northumbria. A sword pommel from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, also closely resembles some aspects of the decoration in the Book of Durrow and will be on display in the exhibition. However these similarities seem to reflect the dispersal and durability of Anglo-Saxon metalwork, and the strong cultural and artistic connections between Ireland and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The Book of Durrow is now generally considered to have been produced in the monastery of Durrow, Co. Offaly, or to have arrived there from Iona.

Our forthcoming exhibition will be the first opportunity to see the Book of Durrow in Britain since it was displayed at the Royal Academy in the ‘Treasures of Trinity College Dublin’ exhibition in 1961. The only loan to that exhibition was the Lindisfarne Gospels. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be the first occasion on which the two manuscripts have been exhibited together for nearly 60 years. As we announced in November last year, the exhibition will also include Codex Amiatinus, which was made in Northumbria in the early 8th century and is returning to Britain for the first time since it was taken to Italy in 716.

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The opening of the Gospel of Matthew, in the Lindisfarne Gospels (British Library Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 27r).

The Book of Durrow contains the text of the four Gospels, adorned with spectacular decoration. Its artists drew inspiration from Ireland, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, Pictland and as far away as the Mediterranean. Its designs are outstanding for their precise geometry, harmonious compositions and bold style of drawing. One of the most striking features of the manuscript is its ‘carpet pages’, so-called because they are completely covered with complex geometric designs. Putting abstract ornament centre stage was new to manuscript illumination, and went on to play an important role in Anglo-Saxon gospel-books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

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The carpet page preceding the Gospel of John, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 192v). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

 Other important elements of the manuscript’s artwork are the images of the evangelist symbols, the creatures that symbolise the gospel-writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Early Christian writers assigned the evangelists the symbols of the man, the lion, the ox/calf and the eagle based on the visions of Ezekiel and John the Evangelist in the Bible. The Book of Durrow is the first surviving manuscript in which each Gospel opens with a picture of the evangelist symbol instead of a portrait of the human evangelist. It is also the first surviving instance of a ‘four-symbols page’ in a manuscript, an image of all four evangelist symbols arranged in a cross shape. The linear style and flat blocks of colour suggest that the creatures were inspired by metalwork objects.

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The eagle, acting as the evangelist symbol of St Mark, in the Book of Durrow (Trinity College Library, Dublin, MS 57, f. 84v). © The Board of Trinity College, Dublin.

The Book of Durrow is one of the most spectacular surviving works of early medieval art and we are very grateful to Trinity College Dublin for loaning this manuscript to the exhibition. If you haven’t already booked tickets to see the Book of Durrow — along with the earliest surviving complete Latin Bible, Old English poetry, Domesday Book and more early art — you can book them here. The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.

 

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11 July 2018

The Winchester Psalter: an illustrated bilingual Psalter

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After the Norman Conquest, the principal language of the aristocracy in England was French, rather than English or Latin.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the Bible was translated into French at an early date. Given the importance of the Psalms in the medieval Church, several early French translations were made, including three or four versions of St Jerome’s Gallican or Gallicanum text, known as such because it was adopted in Gaul as the principal form of the Vulgate. St Jerome completed this translation between 386 and 391, basing it on Origen’s Greek text of the Psalms from the edition of the Old Testament in Hebrew and Greek, the Hexapla.

Twelve manuscripts of the 12th to 13th centuries are known of the so-called Oxford Psalter, based on the Gallicanum version, a translation compiled in England, and all have an English connection. The Winchester Psalter, with an extensive cycle of images, is the most splendid copy of these English manuscripts.

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The Winchester Psalter: Cotton MS Nero C IV, ff. 49v–50r

In this Psalter, the Psalm text is laid out in parallel columns. The Latin is in the right column on the rectos, and in the left on the versos, so that the French text appears side by side when the book is open. This suggests that the book may have been intended for someone who was more comfortable in French than Latin, and that Latin may have served as a kind of reference or critical apparatus to aid the reader. 

The Winchester Psalter is now on display in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery, open to the beginning of the Psalms. The manuscript is also available in full on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. There is a large initial beginning each translation of the biblical text. It is the Latin initial ‘B’(eatus) (blessed) that is more elaborate, with an image of King David writing and playing a viol; while the ‘B’(eonuret) (blessed) on the left is elaborated with foliate decoration only.

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Psalm 1 in the Winchester Psalter: Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 46r

The French version of the text is interpretative rather than literal: for example, the ‘blessed man’ (beatus vir) of the first verse becomes a baron (Beonuret Barun) who does not take counsel with felons (des feluns). 

The Psalter is perhaps better known for its very extensive series of thirty-eight surviving prefatory drawings with coloured washes, including the dramatic and evocative vision of the end of time, with an angel locking the door of Hell. 

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An angel locking the door of Hell: Cotton MS Nero C IV, f. 39r

The book also includes a Calendar, which provides evidence as to its origin. Saints of particular relevance to Winchester are included, among them Bishops Æthelwold (d. 984) and Brinstan (d. 934), and saints buried or with shrines there, such as Eadburh (d. c. 951), a Benedictine nun and daughter of Edward the Elder, and Grimbald (d. 901?), by tradition the co-founder of New Minster (later Hyde Abbey). The Calendar also includes two abbots of Cluny in Burgundy, Sts Hugh (d. 1109) and Mailous (d. 994).

The bishop of Winchester throughout the middle of the 12th century was King Stephen’s younger brother, Henry of Blois (r. 1139–71), who had been educated at Cluny. Henry was one of the richest men in Europe and a known art and relic collector.  When appointed to the see of Winchester, he refused to relinquish the profitable abbacy of Glastonbury, which he held concurrently with Winchester until his death. The Cluniac references, Cathedral-specific prayer and Henry’s great wealth make him a plausible patron for such a lavish book, even if its vernacular components and central focus on the Psalms in French suggests that he may have intended it as a gift for a layperson.

 

Further reading

Francis Wormald, The Winchester Psalter (London, 1973). 

Kristine Haney, The Winchester Psalter: An Iconographic Study (Leicester, 1986). 

Ruth J. Dean & Maureen B. M. Boulton, Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts, Anglo-Norman Text Society, Occasional Publication Series, 3 (London, 1999), nos. 445–456.

Geoff Rector, ‘An Illustrious Vernacular: The Psalter en romanz in Twelfth-Century England’, in Language and Culture in Medieval Britain: The French of England c. 1110–1500, ed. by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne (York, 2009), pp. 198–206.

Scot McKendrick & Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 20.

 

Kathleen Doyle

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09 June 2018

Sir Robert Cotton's manuscripts added to Memory of the World register

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We are delighted that Sir Robert Cotton's collection of manuscripts, held at the British Library, has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. Cotton's library contains many historical and literary treasures of national and international significance, such as Magna Carta, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the only surviving copies of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the autograph papers of a number of British monarchs. Collectively they form a key part of the intellectual heritage of the nation. 

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A page from the Vespasian Psalter, known as Cotton MS Vespasian A I following Robert Cotton's system of arranging his manuscripts in presses named after Roman emperors and imperial ladies. This manuscript, made in Kent in the 8th century, contains an interlinear Old English gloss of the Psalter text: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 31r

Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) was a politician and antiquarian scholar, who began to assemble his collection of manuscripts as early as 1588, aged just seventeen. Cotton's collecting interests focused on works central to the study of British history, such as chronicles, cartularies, maps and state papers.

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A map of Britain by Matthew Paris, monk and chronicler of St Albans (d. 1259). Scotland is joined to the mainland by a bridge at Stirling, while Kent is located due South of London: Cotton MS Claudius D VI/1

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The Cotton library contains a nationally significant collection of medieval chronicles. The manuscript of the Chronicle of Melrose Abbey, shown here recording (in red ink) the foundation of the monasteries of Rievaulx in 1132 and Melrose in 1136, is the oldest surviving annalistic chronicle from Scotland: Cotton MS Faustina B IX, f. 18r

The importance of these manuscripts for our knowledge of the past cannot be overstated. For example, Robert Cotton brought together the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the world, including two early copies of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and five manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, as well as the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, dating from AD 679. Many of these manuscripts will be on display later this year in the Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (19 October 2018–19 February 2019).

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The earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon charter, a grant of land by King Hlothhere of Kent to Abbot Beorhtwald and his monastery, dated 679. This document is also sometimes known as the 'Reculver charter' after the place where it was issued: Cotton MS Augustus II 2

After Robert Cotton's death, the library passed in turn to his son, Sir Thomas Cotton (d. 1662), and grandson, Sir John Cotton (d. 1702). In 1702, the Cotton library was acquired by the British government, the first occasion that any library passed into national ownership in Britain – an important step in the creation of a national, public library.

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Some of the greatest works of medieval English literature are preserved uniquely in the Cotton library, among them the only surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Cotton MS Nero A X/2, ff. 94v–95r

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The Cotton library is integral to our knowledge of early modern British history. This document, written by King Edward VI of England in January 1551/2, is headed 'Certein pointes of weighty matters to be immediatly concluded on by my counsell': Cotton MS Vespasian F XIII, f. 273r. Edward's diary is also held in the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Nero C X, ff. 10–83

Most of the collection survived a major fire in 1731, which formed part of the impetus for the creation of the British Museum in 1753. Some of the manuscripts were damaged significantly in that fire, with a small number being completely destroyed. The volumes in question were restored in the 19th century and they continue to support scientific research into the preservation and digitisation of fire-damaged artefacts.

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In October 1731, the Cotton library narrowly escaped near-total destruction when a fire broke out at Ashburnham House in London. In the 19th century, it was discovered that the fire-damaged parchment leaves could be inlaid in modern paper mounts, as shown here in a page from Bede's Ecclesiastical History: Cotton MS Tiberius A XIV, f. 39r

Ever since the library's formation, the Cotton manuscripts have been made available for consultation by scholars worldwide. You can read more about the Cotton manuscripts in our collection guide here.

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The Cotton library is particularly rich in illuminated manuscripts from Britain and beyond. Here is the opening page of the Coronation Book of King Charles V of France, commissioned in 1365: Cotton MS Tiberius B VIII/2, f. 35r 

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Many of the manuscripts are written in Latin or in English (including Old English, Middle English and Scots English). Other European languages represented in the collection include Cornish, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Welsh. Non-European languages include Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Inuit, Persian and Turkish. Here is page from a Latin-Old Cornish glossary, copied in South-East Wales in the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV, f. 8v

You can view many of the Cotton manuscripts on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. We recommend that, on the homepage, you type into the Manuscripts search box 'Cotton MS' or 'Cotton Ch' in order to see those currently available; more are being added all the time.

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Sir Robert Cotton was closely acquainted with many of the leading scholars and collectors of his day. In this letter, Sir Edward Dering (d. 1644) sent him the charter of King John dated at Runnymede, now known as Magna Carta, and preserved as Cotton Charter XIII 31A: Cotton MS Julius C III, f. 143r

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Cotton was renowned for rearranging his manuscripts and for preserving pages from other books and documents. Prefacing a gospelbook is this cutting from the Breviary of Margaret of York, which in turn incorporates a mounted papyrus fragment of Gregory the Great, Homiliae XL in Evangelia, dating from the late 6th or 7th century: Cotton MS Titus C XV, f. 1r

The British Library's two manuscripts of Magna Carta, issued by King John in 1215 and both forming part of Sir Robert Cotton's library, were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World International Register in 2009. We are thrilled that this whole manuscript collection of national and international importance has now been recognised by UNESCO. We hope that the Cotton library will continue to inspire research into the rich cultural and historical heritage of the British Isles. The full list of inscriptions on the UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register can be accessed here.

Tickets for the British Library's Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, featuring a number of the Cotton manuscripts, can be purchased online.

 

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31 May 2018

London in medieval manuscripts

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The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts team comes from all over the world, but we have one place in common: the city of London, where we work at St Pancras. Today is London History Day, and here are some of our favourite medieval depictions of that city, at once distant yet somehow still recognizable.

 

An early map of the world

London is one of the oldest capital cities, which has survived the fall of the Roman Empire, viking attacks, fires and more. Let's start our survey with the earliest surviving detailed map of the British Isles. This map was made in southern England in the mid-11th century, but it may have been based on earlier models, possibly including maps made under the Roman Empire. The British Isles is shown in the lower left corner, with Lundona being one of the places named.

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Cotton MS Tiberius B V!1  f. 56v British Isles

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An early map of the world, dating from the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v

 

London landmarks

The itinerary of Matthew Paris (d. 1259), a monk of St Albans Abbey, is a linear map that allowed the reader to travel to Jerusalem in his or her mind. Matthew described London as the chief city of England and claimed that it was founded originally by Brutus as ‘New Troy’. Matthew also picked out several landmarks, all of which still exist in some form or another today. These included the River Thames, Lambeth, Westminster, St Martin-in-the-Fields, the bridge, and the Tower of London. At the bottom of the map, Matthew Paris listed several of the gates of London. (Click here to see Edward Mills’s fantastic reconstruction of Matthew’s view of London.)

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Matthew Paris’s depiction of London: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

 

The Tower of London

The earliest topographically accurate depiction of London is found in a collection of the poems of Charles, Duke of Orléans, made in Bruges around 1483. Charles had been captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and he was held in England for the next twenty-five years. At the centre of the image is the Tower of London, where Charles was imprisoned during some of this time in England and where he composed his poems.

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A view of London with the Tower of London, and Duke Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower: Royal MS 16 F II, f. 73r

Another early resident of the Tower was King Richard II. He was held in captivity there shortly after being deposed in 1399. Things didn't end well for Richard, as he subsequently died at Pontefract Castle (perhaps being starved to death).

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Richard II in the Tower: Harley MS 4380, f. 181v

One thing is certain. There are now fewer elephants in residence at the Tower than there were in the time of Matthew Paris!

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Matthew Paris’s drawing of the elephant that lived in the Tower of London: Cotton MS Nero D I, f. 169v

 

St Paul's Cathedral

At the centre of the image in his Itinerary, Matthew Paris drew St Paul’s Church. His building is unfamiliar to modern eyes, since he depicted it with a steeple and not with the iconic dome designed by Christopher Wren (d. 1723), following the destruction of the medieval cathedral in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

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St Paul's Cathedral in the time of Matthew Paris: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 2r

 

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey today is probably not much different from the time of Matthew Paris. In the same manuscript as the Itinerary, Matthew Paris drew depictions of kings holding objects with which they are particularly identified. He depicted King Henry III (r. 1216–1272) holding Westminster Abbey, which he had rebuilt over the structure commissioned by Edward the Confessor. The Abbey today is still largely the same design as that commissioned by Henry.

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Matthew Paris’s depiction of Henry III holding Westminster Abbey: Royal MS 14 C VII, f. 9r 

 

London Bridge

Other London landmarks looked very different. The city's bridges are not lined today with houses, as London Bridge was in the medieval period. The population of London was also substantially smaller: around 60,000 people lived there by 1500. But ‘rush hour’ could still be perilous. John Lydgate recounted how, at 4pm on 20 November 1441, the young son of a butcher was pushed by an ox and fell off London Bridge. Thanks to the help of St Edmund, a passing boatman rescued the child and returned him, safe and sound, to his mother. The whole sequence is illustrated vividly in a 15th-century copy of Lydgate’s Lives of SS Edmund and Fremund.

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A boy falling off London Bridge and being returned by a boatman to his mother: Yates Thompson MS 47, ff. 94v, 97r

 

Alison Hudson and Julian Harrison

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19 April 2018

A Bible fit for a king

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As regular readers of this Blog will know, the display of the Lindisfarne Gospels follows a conservation programme recommended by an international committee of experts. It is now back in secure storage for a rest period, until the autumn when it will be back on display and featured in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library. 

In its place we have just put out on display in the British Library's Sir John Ritblat Gallery (Royal MS 15 D I and Royal MS 18 D IX) two volumes that have been described as forming the most beautiful Bible in French ever made (Berger, La Bible (1884), p. 389; a companion volume is Royal MS 18 D X). Their large number of images, which illustrate a wide range of Old and New Testament subjects, certainly make the Bible among the most profusely illustrated. Moreover, many of their illustrations treat their biblical subjects with a painterly breadth and spaciousness that distinguish them from other late medieval Bible miniatures. Overall, the Bible is an eloquent witness to why Gabriel Tetzel, a visitor to England, described the court of Edward IV (r. 1461–83) in February 1466 as ‘the most splendid … in all Christendom’ (cited in Charles Ross, Edward IV (London, 1974), p. 259).

These volumes were produced in Bruges, one of the most vibrant commercial and artistic centres in Europe during the second half of the 15th  century. Bruges teemed with book artisans capable of producing high quality manuscripts for wealthy clients.

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As he sits feasting at his table, King Belshazzar is distressed at the sight of a disembodied human hand writing on the wall of his chamber, in the book of Daniel: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 45r

As in many such volumes, the illumination is the result of close collaboration between several artists. All but one of its eleven large miniatures in the volume including the books of Tobit to the Acts of the Apostles (Royal MS 15 D I) were contributed by a principal artist working with a talented assistant. In such images as Belshazzar’s Feast these two illuminators developed striking compositions, the basic simplicity of which is enlivened by the bold application of a lively palette and the introduction of a range of complicated figure poses. Despite their large size, all the illustrations focus almost entirely on one episode each.

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Christ dies on the Cross between the two thieves, as Mary falls into the arms of St John, the other two women look on in grief and the Centurion and soldiers converse, in the Gospel Harmony: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 353r

Additional scenes are relegated to obscure corners of the miniatures and easily overlooked by the viewer. In putting together their paintings, the two miniaturists drew on a stock of patterns of both individual figures and groups. Sources for the impressive Crucifixion, for example, include an earlier Netherlandish engraving of the same subject for the two thieves and a panel painting of the Crucifixion by the celebrated Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden (d. 1464) for the crucified Christ.

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Judith holds the head of the Assyrian general Holofernes whom she has beheaded while in a drunken stupor in his tent outside the besieged city of Bethulia; in the background she carries his head on the point of her sword back to the city, in the book of Judith: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 66v

The only large miniature not painted by these two artists, The Death of Holofernes, was contributed by a painter who worked with a more subdued palette and had greater interest in the depiction of space and the play of light over forms.

Like many of his royal predecessors, Edward IV sought to possess some of the finest books produced on the Continent. As a result he established a remarkable collection of lavish south Netherlandish manuscripts that reflected contemporary aristocratic taste for French instructional and historicising texts enlivened by colourful illuminations. At the beginning of the Tobit to Acts volume, an inscription by the scribe Jan du Ries identifies the date of his manuscript as 1470 and its patron as Edward. However, the volume appears not to have been originally intended for the English king. Edward’s name and titles have clearly been written over an erasure and were not part of du Ries’s original text. Further evidence suggests that the volume was completed for Edward much later.

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Tobit is blinded by bird droppings while he lies asleep in his house; outside Tobit’s son Tobias converses with the angel Raphael disguised as a traveller, at the beginning of the book of Tobit: Royal MS 15 D I, f. 18r

The two companion volumes that make up the remainder of his Bible historiale are dated 1479, a date that conforms to what we now know to have been Edward’s principal period of collecting Netherlandish illuminated manuscripts. Detailed analysis of the heraldry and border decoration, together with an analysis of the costumes of the figures, confirms that the decoration of this volume also formed part of that campaign around 1479.

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God creating the animals: Royal MS 18 D IX, f. 5r

The other volume on display features a magnificent image of God creating the animals, painted in vivid detail. Probably for lack of an earlier patron with sufficient interest and wealth, the high ambition of the planners of this copy of the Bible historiale remained unfulfilled until several years after the writing of the text, when the painting was finally completed for the English king.

 

Further reading

Samuel Berger, La Bible française au Moyen Âge: Étude sur les plus anciennes versions de la Bible écrites en prose de langue d’oïl (Paris, 1884), pp. 389–90.

Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe (Los Angeles, 2003), no. 82.

John Lowden, ‘Bible historiale: Tobit to Acts’, in Scot McKendrick, John Lowden and Kathleen Doyle, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination (London, 2011), no. 53.

Scot McKendrick, ‘The Manuscripts of Edward IV: The Documentary Evidence’, in 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, ed. by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick (London, 2013), pp. 149–77.

Scot McKendrick and Kathleen Doyle, The Art of the Bible: Illuminated Manuscripts from the Medieval World (London: Thames & Hudson, 2016), no. 42.

 

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